Thanks to K.M. Weiland for sharing this excellent guest post.
When someone mentions the phrase “classic book,” what do you think of? That mammoth copy of War & Peace you used as a doorstop all semester in your junior year? That pile of Cliff’s Notes you borrowed from the library whenever you had to write book reports? All the black and white movies you opted to watch instead of reading the books?
Many of us have negative associations with classic literature, thanks to teachers who “forced” us to read these old books when we were in less-than-appreciative frames of mind. But it’s time to shake off the negativity! Not only are the classics a treasure trove of wonderful stories about our past, present, and future, they’re also a gold mine of learning opportunities for authors.
Ten years ago, I made the commitment to read all the classics, and so far, I’ve worked my way up through the “H” authors (Hemingway and Homer are on my digital shelf at the moment). I cannot even begin to tell you how much I’ve gleaned from this commitment, both as a person and a writer. I got to kick this experiment into high gear when I was asked to write Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. Analyzing this masterpiece of literature, on more than just a superficial level, taught me more about writing than has any other single reading experience.
Want to join the fun? Here are five reasons all authors should be reading the classics:
1. Personal Expansion
This is the big one. It’s impossible to separate writing from life. If we’re not living full, deep lives, we will never be able to bring fullness or depth to our stories. Reading is a vital part of achieving personal expansion. Most of us can’t afford to travel the world, and even if we could, merely standing in a different place won’t let us look into the minds of other people from other places and times.
In reading the classics (I alternate one classic for every “modern” book I read), I have been forced to read:
- Authors of both genders.
- Authors who lived from the 8th century BC (The Iliad) through the 1950s (my personal cut-off point).
- Authors from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Poland, Russia, China, and more.
I’ve read books my own personal tastes would never have led me to pick off the shelf. I’ve read books I hated, books I loved, and books I learned to love even though I may have hated them in beginning.
Reading such a wide swath of books has broadened my personal horizons exponentially. Even when those new horizons don’t directly impact my writing, they can’t help but impact it indirectly. Whenever I grow as a person, I grow as a writer.
2. Bragging Rights
All right, I’ll admit this one is just a teeny little reason in comparison to the others on this list. But who among us can’t use a few extra bragging rights? Being well read will not only help you ace all those trivia games you play with your friends, it will also offer the writer-centric benefit of backing up your claims of authorship with some hard-earned experience. Reading Brontë, Dickens, and Dostoevsky won’t automatically get you onto the bestseller list, but an ability to converse intelligently about the classics won’t hurt your chances in any meeting with a reader, agent, editor, or any other industry professional.
3. Insight Into Literature’s Evolution
In reading the classics, you’re not just reading well-written stories that have stood the test of time. What you’re really reading is the history of literature. Reading the Aeneid won’t offer you many instantly applicable story insights. But being able to recognize the commonalities, even in ancient literature, and to chart their evolution through the centuries will bring you to a better understanding of why modern stories look the way they do.
These days, we often hear authors complaining about the lengthy descriptions (especially of weather) found in old books. “Authors today sure wouldn’t get away with that!” they say—and, of course, they’re right. But any student of literature will benefit from understanding the mindset of bestselling authors from days of yore and learning why those mindsets have had to adapt over the centuries.
4. Opportunity to Study Story Theory
You know how to create dazzling, three-dimensional characters? Check. You know how to create sparklingly clear and insightful prose? Another check. You know how to whip out witty and realistic dialogue? Triple check.
But, to quote Yoda, all of these important literary elements a story do not make. Story goes much deeper than just the shiny trappings. Story theory is the study of what elements—particularly structure—make a story work and why.
The best way any of us can learn story theory is through osmosis by reading voraciously. And one of the best places to devote some reading time is to (you guessed it) the classics. As you watch storytelling evolve over the years, you’ll have a front row seat to fundamental elements of story that haven’t changed. You’ll be able to absorb these important storytelling truths and calculate your own theories about the principles at the heart of all good stories.
5. Analysis of the Masters
Finally, by consciously pursuing the classics, what you will really be pursuing are the master authors that have gone before you. Prior to my experience in annotating Jane Eyre specifically for writers, I had always resisted the idea of analyzing favorite stories. What if, in looking inside them and figuring out their clockwork, I lost the magic of these beautiful tales?
Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. Studying Jane Eyre not only blew my mind with writing revelation after writing revelation, it also brought me to a much deeper appreciation of this amazing book.
I encourage you to do the same. Choose one of your favorite classics and buy it secondhand in paperback format (large print if you can find it). Gather some highlighters and pens and snuggle up to read. I suggest selecting several writing topics (plot, character, narrative, dialogue, etc.) and assigning a highlighter color to each topic. As you’re reading and you’re struck with evidence of a particularly good technique or scene, stop to highlight it with the appropriate color. Write notes with abandon. I guarantee what you discover will be a wealth of information you would have missed entirely without a conscious analysis of the book.
The truth is this: authors can’t afford not to read the classics. The lessons offered by these old books are the key to unlocking our own stories’ potential. And besides, why would we want to miss out on centuries of amazing stories? The classics offer entertainment and education all wrapped up in one package!